Nonfiction, What Shannon Read

Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth

Book cover: Heartland: A Memoir if working hard and being broke in America by Sarah SmarshI’m not sure I can adequately sum up the many wonderful parts of Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth by Sarah Smarsh in a blog post. But I’ll do my best.

Firstly, Smarsh’s story of growing up poor and “country” in Kansas brings a realness and a deeply personal perspective to an examination of being poor and white in the U.S. Through a combination of scenes and vignettes, we are led through a story of one family’s struggle to get by in rural Kansas.

The Goodreads blurb explains the overall concept best, “During Sarah Smarsh’s turbulent childhood in Kansas in the 1980s and 1990s, the forces of cyclical poverty and the country’s changing economic policies solidified her family’s place among the working poor. By telling the story of her life and the lives of the people she loves, Smarsh challenges us to look more closely at the class divide in our country and examine the myths about people thought to be less because they earn less.”

Her narrative set-up is unique. Throughout the book, she speaks directly to “August,” her as yet un-conceived daughter. I thought I would hate that device. And it’s getting a lot of guff on Goodreads, but honestly, I think the way she uses it is kind of brilliant. It sounds airy-fairy, but by the end of the book you come to understand that she is sort of speaking to a version of  herself or even to her Higher Self (as the New Agers say).

The idea that Smarsh would end up a pregnant teen is one that hangs over her as she grows up. She’s the daughter of a teen mom and so is her mom and so was her grandmother. This lineage leads us through a timeline of generational poverty, inherited by the daughters of each subsequent mother, right through to Sarah’s childhood in the 80s and 90s.

An examination of the system that keeps poor people poor is woven throughout. Herbert Hoover, Regan, Bush, and Clinton (the demonizer of the “welfare queen”) are all mentioned and their policies criticized. Sarah also examines the judgement placed on poor people just for being poor in the U.S. Being poor is often seen as a moral failure here and is likely to be blamed on an individual’s choices rather than acknowledged as the result of a systematic problem.

Here’s a quote:

Our struggles forced a question about America that many were not willing to face: If a person could go to work every day and still not be able to pay the bills and the reason wasn’t racism, what less articulated problem was afoot? When I was growing up, the United States had convinced itself that class didn’t exist here. I’m not sure I even encountered the concept until I read some old British novel in high school. This lack of acknowledgment at once invalidated what we were experiencing and shamed us if we tried to express it. Class was not discussed, let alone understood. This meant that, for a child of my disposition—given to prodding every family secret, to sifting through old drawers for clues about the mysterious people I loved—every day had the quiet underpinning of frustration. The defining feeling of my childhood was that of being told there wasn’t a problem when I knew damn well there was.

So this book is much more than a memoir. It tells the story of one woman and one family, but it also provides cultural context for that story.

Finishing this book, I was emotional. I kept thinking, “What can we do? What can we do?” Unchecked capitalism is definitively not working. But what are the answers? How do we fix a broken system, one where the rich get richer and the poor get poorer? It’s modern, Western society’s whole set-up. But it only works for a few of us.

The problem is so big. And I’m not educated or smart enough, let alone powerful enough, to know how to solve any of it. I can only cast my vote in the way I think best and help where I can. I don’t know.

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Nonfiction, What Shannon Read

Two True Crime Hits

I sped through two works of true crime last week. I can’t get interested in any of the classics I’ve been wanting to read because all I want to read about is murder, apparently.Green River, Running Red: The Real Story of the Green River Killer - America's Deadliest Serial Murderer

What kicked off this spree was listening to the Crime Junkie podcast and hearing the story of the Green River Killer. It reminded me that Ann Rule had written a book about the case that I had glanced at and then dismissed because I wasn’t interested. Well, I downloaded the Kindle book from the library and set about getting all the terrible details.

Green River, Running Red is a story about the investigation of murders committed by a serial killer who targeted mostly women involved in prostitution beginning in the 80s (and possibly late 70s). Rule tells the story of many of the victims and what led them to prostitution along the SeaTac highway in Seattle. She does tell the story of the killer, Gary Ridgway, a classic normal-seeming blue collar worker who left some of his first victims along the Green River. He was finally caught in 2001 and eventually convicted of 49 murders, though he confessed to around 70, and is suspected to have been responsible for even more.

Ann Rule is my favorite true crime writer, hands down. Her focus in Green River, Running Red, like in her other books, is the police investigation of the crime at hand and she pays special attention to the victims and their stories, making sure to humanize those whose lives are often disregarded by larger society. She does paint a picture of the killer’s life and upbringing because she, like her readers, is fascinated by the personality that can lead someone to kill and kill over and over again.

Those stories are told within the framework of the police investigation leading to the killer’s eventual arrest. I recommend reading this only if you’ve got a strong stomach. There are graphic descriptions of the ways in which victims’ bodies are found, but I found the description of Ridgway and clearly psychopathic personality almost equally disturbing.

EvilAnother Crime Junkie episode reminded me of the case of Sylvia Likens, who was tortured to death in the home of a woman who was supposed to be taking care of her while her parents worked with a traveling carnival outfit. This case is well-known in Indiana, where I live, as it took place in Indianapolis, so I was eager to learn more.

After some online research, I landed on House of Evil by John Dean, which was first published in 1966, just a yer after Sylvia’s murder.

What’s unique about this terrible story is the fact that Gertrude Baniszewski, caregiver to Sylvia and her sister Jenny, solicited the help of her own daughter, Paula, as well as several neighborhood children, to abuse and eventually kill Sylvia. This story also requires a strong stomach, so if you can’t stand stories of child abuse or violence, avoid it, and maybe read the Wikipedia article, which is pretty correct, instead.

A review note: I thought this book was well-written, but I noticed some Goodreads reviewers calling it “scattered.” I didn’t think it was at all. There’s a clear progression along a timeline leading from the Likens sisters being dropped off with Gertrude right through the trial. Scenes are written pretty much chronologically.

On a tangential note, it’s hard to say why I read true crime. After finishing these books, I wondered, am I turning someone else’s tragedies into entertainment? I can’t honestly say that that’s not part of what I’m doing in reading these books. I mean, I think some  fascination with abhorrent behavior is natural. We all like to tell or listen to incredible stories and then remark “Isn’t that crazy?” And wonder how or why something terrible/crazy was allowed to happen. But is this kind of leisure reading akin to watching reality TV where the struggles of the people being filmed are offered up as entertainment? I don’t have an answer.

This list of 12 Reasons We Like True Crime was slightly reassuring. But only slightly.

Thoughts?

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Nonfiction, What Shannon Read

Bingeworthy British Television

I consider myself something of an Anglophile, so when my favorite book blogger Sarah Cords sent me her book, Bingeworthy British Television: The Best Brit TV You Can’t Stop Watching, written with Jackie Bailey, I. was. stoked.

If you, like me, have dipped your toes into British TV via Acorn or just Netflix, and if you, like me, read encyclopedias for fun as a kid, you are in for a real treat. 

This is a quintessential guide to the British TV shows you have and haven’t heard about. My reading life is about to suffer…

The book is organized in sections by type of show: comedies, dramas, historical dramas, etc. Each 2-ish page entry focuses on one show, gives a synopsis, and talks about “Why It’s Bingeworthy.” There’s even a little trivia section and then the authors tell you “What to Binge on Next.”

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Honestly, one of my favorite things about the book is the little asides written by Jackie Bailey, a real life British person (lol) who gives us insight into watching television as a British citizen. If you don’t live in England, you may not know, for example, that: 

Every household in the UK that watches or records television is required, by law, to purchase a TV license. This currently costs £150.50 (about $200) per year. This money is used to fund the BBC and means that all BBC channels (on television and radio) are broadcast without any adverts.

I love the little peek into life in the UK. And I highly recommend the book if you have an interest in British TV. Also, Sarah runs The Great British TV Site, so check that out.

Do you have any favorite British shows? So far, I have loved Doc Martin, Gardener’s World, and, of course, Downton Abbey.

 

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Nonfiction, What Shannon Read

The Kids Will Be Fine

18465524Sometimes you just need to read something you agree with. Something squarely in your wheelhouse. Over the weekend, I felt due for a nice, salty rant about something, anything, that I could get behind. So I turned to The Kids Will Be Fine: Guilt-Free Motherhood for Thoroughly Modern Women by Daisy Waugh. Daisy delivered exactly what I needed. I knew she would because I’ve read this book before (in 2014, says Goodreads). But I remember liking it so much that I felt it was worth a re-read.

It was.

I have felt kind of salty myself lately about other people’s children. In general and in theory, I really like children. Children are the future, per Whitney Houston. They are beautiful and special and fun for many different reasons, including that life itself is precious and children have only just started the journey, free of the fetters of societal expectations for the moment.

But as I’ve gotten older and more experienced as a parent and a human being, I’ve begun to see other people’s faults played out in their children. Meaning, I often run into children who are spoiled and coddled and whose every action and conversation is prodded and guarded and narrated by their doting (insanely overly attentive) parents.

Jacob

Our own kid, who graduated over the weekend, with doting, proud, but not insanely overly attentive parents.

Is it the children’s fault? Certainly not. And, probably, most but the criminal parents among us are trying our best. There’s no handbook, as we all know, for the right way to raise children.

But there is common sense. And lest you think this was a rant of my own and not at all a book review, I will tell you that Daisy Waugh’s book lists the various aspects of parenting where modern parents tend to fail in applying common sense.

Rather than chapters, Waugh lists sections and topics, beginning with Part 1: Pregnancy and Birth and Ending with Part 5: Charm School.

Each section contains related topics, such as Baby on Board, a rant on those “Baby on Board” signs everyone puts in their cars; Babies at Night (“Can be a nuisance.”); and Other People’s Children (“Are likely to be fractionally less interesting and more irritating to us than our own…”). Accurate.

I just really enjoyed reading those passages on the behavior of other people’s children because they, specifically, have been annoying me lately (not all my friends’ children, mind you. Mostly strangers’.)

In addition, I loved what Waugh has to say about the helpful approach known as unparenting:

By unparenting, I mean that we avoid making motherhood any more wearisome, costly, or complicated than it needs to be. It means banishing pointless after-school activities that entail chauffeuring; eliminating “playdates” that require organizing more than a couple of days in advance; no more costume requirements for school shows and assemblies; and definitely no more maternal guilt.

And about freedom from maternal martyr syndrome, which she highlights in her response to a ubiquitous, insipid, not to mention non-inclusive, Facebook post making the rounds during the time she was writing the book. Here’s the post and the beginning of her commentary:

To all the UNSELFISH MOMS out there who traded sleep for dark circles, salon haircuts for ponytails, long showers for quick showers, late nights for early mornings, designer bags for diaper bags & WOULDN’T CHANGE A THING. Lets [sic] see how many Moms can actually post this. Moms who DON’T CARE about what they gave up and instead LOVE what they got in return! Post this if you LOVE your LIFE as a mom ♥

Barf bags disposed of? Good. Where do we begin? It’s absurd, clearly. And could be dismissed on grounds of breathtaking inanity. Nevertheless, in its clumsy way, it highlights what is a commonly held belief: that good motherhood requires a denial of personal pleasure and a negation of the self.

If you are tired of hearing about the negation of the self being a prerequisite for motherly love, I recommend reading that section. I know from experience that one can be a parent and have a separate identity too. Given this culture of self-sacrifice around parenting, it’s just nice to have that affirmed once in a while.

Look, I know I shouldn’t be in the business of criticizing other parents who are trying their best. I know how hard it is to raise kids, the demands that pull at you from all corners. It’s just. Sometimes I want to be crabby about kids with bad manners. Ok?

And that is my very ranty post for today. 🙂

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Top Ten Tuesday

Top Ten Tuesday: Characters that remind me of myself

I was not planning to participate in this week’s Top Ten Tuesday prompt until my number one character popped into my head. After searching my book log on Goodreads, I came up with three more, but that’s where I stopped and had the thought that, actually, I don’t tend to read about characters that remind me of me. More often, I find characters that remind me of other people.

Then I was emailing with Ben and he came up with his own, so between us we put together a list of eight.

Ten Characters That Remind Me of…Me!

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Kate Maberly as Mary Lennox in the 1993 adaptation of The Secret Garden

1. [Shannon] Mary Lennox from the very beginning of The Secret Garden: A little spoiled, a little bratty, has some health issues, loves animals, definitely needs to get outside more. I would argue that I am less bratty than Mary and Ben says he doesn’t think I’m that spoiled, but still, the characteristics are present.

 

MyYearofRestandRelaxation2. [Shannon] The narrator of My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh: I’m not nearly as cranky or rude and I do not conduct myself as poorly in relationships as this character does, but I identify with her world-weariness and inclination toward escape. Sleep for a year? Sounds amazing.

 

BennyHogan

Minnie Driver as Benny Hogan

3. [Shannon] Benny Hogan in Circle of Friends by Maeve Binchy: This was a favorite of my friend group growing up. I’ve read the book at least five times and seen the movie starring Minnie Driver and Chris O’Donnell countless times. Anywho, I identify with Benny as the solid, reliable girl. She’s an older-sister type without any siblings.

 

Banana4. [Shannon] Nell Schwartz of Banana Rose by Natalie Goldberg: Artsy, creative hippie woman with a love of the outdoors who falls in love with a hippie-ish dude and must battle the oppressive Midwestern winters. Sounds about right.

 

Gawain

Joel Edgerton as Gawain in King Arthur (2004)

5. [Ben] Gawain:He’s a little tricky, because different versions of the legend give different portrayals, ranging from heroic to villainous. But he’s often noted to have strength that varies with the sun. He’s weaker in the early morning, getting a substantial boost in power after 9 or so.  Then he has a slump around sunset.  It really do be like that.

He’s one of the more humanized characters in the Arthurian legends: sometimes criticized for a lack of piety, but generally regarded as honorable. Loyal to friends and siblings, vengeful toward those who do him wrong. Brave but not fearless.

WatershipDownbook6. [Ben] Bigwig from Watership Down: big, stubborn, tries to protect his smaller buddies, prone to make weird friends.

 

 

ParadiseLost7. [Ben] Lucifer in Paradise Lost: The ultimate individualist. I’m definitely not much of a “serve in heaven” type of guy.

 

 

Edmund

Skandar Keynes as Edmund in the 2005 movie

8. [Ben] Speaking of the dark side, Edmund from The Lion The Witch And The Wardrobe was always kinda relatable for me: contemptuous of saccharine-sweet goody-two-shoes like Lucy and Peter, prone to brood about perceived injustice, easily swayed by flattery and free food, slow to admit his mistakes. A lot in common with my id.

If you participated in Top Ten Tuesday, drop a link in the comments so we can see your list!

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Nonfiction, What Shannon Read

Help Me! One Woman’s Quest to Find Out if Self-help Really Can Change Your Life


HelpMebookHelp Me! by Marianne Power
was a fun little romp. I’ve said recently that if I am going to read and enjoy a memoir (or essays), I have to like the author’s voice. And Power has a very distinct voice. She’s Irish, living in London, and her style is sort of Bridget Jones or, as one Goodreads reviewer put it “this memoir reminded me of a Sophie Kinsella novel.”

I’ve only read the first Shopaholic book, but I totally get it.

Anyway, Help Me! is Power’s memoir about one year in her life in which she attempts to actually take the advice given in her favorite, or just well-known, self-help books. She’s a self-help book addict, so to speak, and though she’d read it for years before writing the book, she noticed that she moved from one book to the other without ever really applying what she’d read.

One of the things I liked about this book is that it gives a view of the self-help industry, and it is a billion dollar industry, from the view of someone who buys in to the various popular gurus’ advice while possessing enough self-awareness to criticize it thoughtfully. Though, as you’ll see, Power gets deeper into the world of self-help and starts to lose her perspective.

Power is funny and endearing throughout. She had me from this paragraph:

“So why did I read self-help if it didn’t, well, help? Like eating chocolate cake or watching old episodes of Friends, I read self-help for comfort. These books acknowledged the insecurities and anxieties I felt but was always too ashamed to talk about. They made my personal angst seem like a normal part of being human. Reading them made me feel less alone.”

That is exactly why I read self-help. I have a few shelves devoted to it myself (though it’s mixed in with some other general spirituality/philosophy/psychology stuff):

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I mean, I also read it so I can use some of the advice, but, admittedly, follow-through is not my strong suit. But it keeps me inspired. I’m not looking for a fix, let alone a quick fix, for any of my problems at this point. I’m just looking for ways to continue working on myself.

Anyway, if you read self-help, I think you’ll really enjoy the books Power chooses, her methods of applying the advice given, and the consequences that play out in her personal life. As a self-help reader, I felt like an insider. I recognized every book and author and much of the advice.

I also appreciated Power’s critique of gurus and methods, though she doesn’t approach this with the intention of an exposé. She’s sincere about her interest and her attempts to find advice to apply to her own life. Still, I found the chapter on Tony Robbins especially poignant. Power attends a three-day event of his and the whole thing reminds me of one of those kooky mega-churches with Christian rock music and a pastor with trendy facial hair. It’s fascinating.

Anyway, whether you like self-help or not, I’d recommend this one. I enjoyed Power’s personality and insights; plus, she’s a journalist, which means her writing is particularly adept. That can be hard to find with funny writing. I so often read books where the author is funny but a bit clumsy.

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Friday Fives

Friday Fives

Happy Friday! It’s been a pretty mundane week, but I finished one book and started another, so I call it a win.

What I’m Watching:

Yesterday, I discovered these short BBC videos titled “The funny thing about…” Great format and they address some interesting topics.

Otherwise, I’ve now actually subscribed to BritBox and have continued the delightful Gardener’s World.

Atomic Habits by James ClearWhat I’m Reading: 

This week I finished Help Me! by Marianne Power (blog post to come) and started the much buzzed about Atomic Habits by James Clear. Got a copy from the library and liked it so much that I’ve ordered my own so I can mark it up with notes and highlights.

What I’m Listening to:

Not much of anything this week, I’m afraid. The weather has been rainy and cold, so I haven’t been walking home, which is when I usually listen to audiobooks and podcasts.

studionotenotebookWhat I’m Making: 

Crafts for some friends’ baby shower and that’s about it. I didn’t even work on my puzzle this week. Maybe it’s the weather. I’m too tired and curmudgeonly. I do continue to journal though and this week I was pleased to receive a new notebook I ordered, the Studio Note Tamoe River Notebook by Nanami Paper. It’s 480 pages of grid-paper goodness that lays flat when you write in it. The paper is fountain-pen friendly, which means I may have to treat myself to one of those too.

What I’m Loving: 

This lovely garden blog: Tangly Cottage Garden Journal

I’m hoping to be inspired to get my act together with our outdoor space. We just had a giant red oak removed because it was trying to push into our roof, so that was step one. I have a whole border flower garden planned out and I may be able to piecemeal some of it together this year, but we’re also shoveling money into painting our house, so…

Giant stump (and Jacob’s shadow)

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Trunk on a truck in our driveway, plus the stumps of three small (diseased) trees that were also removed.

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It’ll all come together in the end, right?…RIGHT?!

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The house is slightly more finished than this now. The triangle at the top and all other sides have yet to see paint.

Tell me what you’re up to/into lately! ❤ 🙂

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